A Brief History of Italian Surnames

Today there are more than 300,000 traditional surnames in Italy not counting new ones introduced through immigration.  A precise calculation is impossible because over time some become extinct and others are formed—often from transcription errors in the registry offices.  The number of surnames is actually quite large compared to other regions of Europe.  Some may be variants of the same original surname.  The linguistic fragmentation of Italy with its many dialects and the relatively late development of a national language may explain this phenomenon.

What are the most common surnames in Italy today?  According to one classification, the top 10 are Rossi, Ferrari, Russo, Bianchi, Romano, Gallo, Costa, Fontana, Conti, and Esposito.  Go to www.mappadeicognomi.it for the top 1000.

Many people think that surnames today came from Latin names when, in fact, they evolved more directly from the Middle Ages.  Even if your name is Cesaroni today, you probably cannot claim Caesar as your ancestor.  In Roman times (100 bc – 400 dc) there was a system of three names like Caio Giulio Cesare (Caesar) e Marco Tullio Cicerone (Cicero).  Here is where is gets confusing.   The three names were called praenomen, nomen e cognomen, and the meanings are somewhat different from what you might expect.  The praenomen is comparable to the personal name of today.  The nomen is similar to today’s surname, and the cognomen is the similar to the contemporary definition of nickname—hence, Caesar and Cicero.

In the first centuries of the Middle Ages (500 – 1000 dc), the custom became to have only one name.  In feudal times, the surname was not used because peasants were servants of the land in the hands of their lords.  To distinguish among them, the name of the father was used at most.

Then things changed after the year 1,000 because of greater mobility.  There were movements among populations, of goods, of population centers, of trades.  At this point, having only one name became a serious problem.  So, a second name became assigned to citizens, that which today we call cognomi (surnames).  They were chosen in different ways:

  • from the name of the father or possibly an ancestor (for example, di Francesco, di Stefano, di Matteo);
  • from the place of origin (for example, Ferraresi, Romano);
  • from the trade or profession (for example, barbieri [barbers], cacciatori [hunters];
  • from physical characteristics (for example, biondi (blond), gobbi (hunchbacked), bassi (short), mancini (left handed).

Then in 1564 with the Council of Trent, the Catholic church established that in every parish all the baptisms and deaths be put in a registry, which was already being done but only sporadically. From 1866 on, registrations, including marital status, were located in every municipality.

Let’s look at the derivation of some of the most common names.  Rossi and Russo:  The origin of these surnames (and variants) is linked to the color of hair and complexion.  The spread of red hair in the Celtic pre-Roman populations was quite remarkable, as well as among the Latin people.  In ancient popular beliefs, red hair symbolized a capricious and impulsive character, but also creativity and ingenuity.  While these surnames are found throughout Italy, Rossi has greater concentration in the center-north, Russo has a major concentration in Campania (especially in the Naples area), and Russi is specific to Puglia.  Rizzo comes from a dialect nickname for riccio, which means curly to indicate a physical characteristic, like curly hair, or character, a rough and angular person.  While the name is widespread throughout Italy, there are concentrations in Sicily and Puglia.  A variant, Rizzoli, is typical of Emilia Romagna, while Rizzolo is present mainly in Veneto, Piedmont, and Sicily.

Ferrari (from ferro, iron) comes from nicknames linked to a blacksmith’s trade or a worker involved in the extraction or fusion of iron.  The surname is widespread throughout the peninsula but particularly in the north.  Variants include Ferrarini, Ferrario, and Ferrieri.

Esposito comes from the word that means “exposed.”  This surname was given to orphans abandoned in front of churches or monasteries until 1814.   It is widespread thoughout Italy and in Campania in particular, whereas Espositi is mainly Roman.

For other surnames, visit www.cognomix.it.


This entry was posted in Abitudini, Campania, English, Italia, La Gente, Piemonte, Puglia, Sicilia, Storia, Veneto. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Brief History of Italian Surnames

  1. Marie Panzera says:

    Brava. Love it, Barbara. All quiet on the western front?

    Sent from my iPad

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